Alison’s Marathon des Sables blog: Stage 4

Stage 4: 82K

I made it! Everyone says that if you can get through the long stage you'll finish the race. I'm happy to report that at around 1.30 today (Thursday) I hobbled across the finish line after 82K, not quite last but with not too many people behind me.

With blisters upon blisters, every step of the 82K was painful but I broke it into two sections, spending 10 hours last night at checkpoint four to sleep while it was dark, which seemed sensible. The course is marked by glow sticks on posts and every competitor attaches once to the back of their backpack, so I could have kept going, but I was nervous about getting lost. Also, to be frank I was exhausted by 8pm and 49K.

I didn't run at all yesterday, managing only a brisk march, but I was in better shape than a lot of people. Bad though my blisters are, they pale into insignificance compared with condition of some people's feet: minced beef springs to mind.

The long stage is special for several reasons, one being that it's the one time the slower runners get to witness the faster competitors in action. The top 50 men and top 5 women all start three hours later than everyone else, so around four hours in the race on a rocky ridge, the race leaders sped past at what I really do hesitate to call (but will, anyway) a blistering pace; in reality it was around 12K an hour.

After 10 hours lying in a Berber tent, during which time people came and went, dawn broke at around 5.30am and we set off for the final 33K. The clock doesn't stop if you have a break to sleep, but I didn't care. I could not have walked another step last night. With new bandages around my feet, it took a while to get used to feeling pain with every step, but after the final checkpoint the camp came into sight - around six miles away, down a valley. I managed to break into a trot when I saw the giant inflatable silver teapots that sponsors Sultan Tea put up at every finish. A glass of hot, sweet mint tea greets everyone who crosses the line. It's usually welcome, and was today, until I threw it back up five minutes later. The talk is that it was 49C here today, so my guess is that a little too much sun and the mint tea didn't agree with me.

There are still a few people out on the course (the time limit for the stage is 34 hours) so people are starting to emerge from their tents to go over to the finish and cheer them in. I'm not feeling too tired because I didn't run but I'm still nervous about the marathon stage tomorrow. Grimacing with every step takes a little of the joy out of being in a stunning, albeit hostile, environment. I'm thankful that I'm surviving it.